The Four Tops’ bass player Renaldo Benson originally wrote "What’s Going On" in 1970 after seeing several anti-war protesters being bullied and arrested by police. After being rejected by the Four Tops, Benson enlisted the help of songwriter Al Cleveland and the two of them invited Marvin Gaye to collaborate on the song.
Gaye's contribution to the track was in the form of additional lyrics and the piano segments as it added a very unique element stemming from his complicated personal life and war stories he heard from his brother Frankie about Viet Nam.
The song found its name when Gaye said to Benson on the golf course "What’s going on man".
The saxophone intro is of particular interest as it was the unintended result of some spur of the moment improvisation from saxophonist Eli Fontaine. Fontaine maintained that he was "just goofing" to which Gaye replied "you goofed off exquisitely".
A unique aspect of the song is its use of major 7 and minor 7 chords- a rarity among Motown tunes. This helped with its melancholy and unfulfilling feel, a trait that is consistent with the song's somber lyrics of sadness and helplessness.
Along with that Gaye called for a better tomorrow and a more patient world where people talk instead of using violence, "don’t punish me with brutality- talk to me so that you can see what’s going on"
"What’s Going On" was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement and it was a radical departure from the Motown hits of the 60s. The song had a tremendous impact because listeners weren't used to hearing social commentary from Gaye.
One of the very first black artists to refer to politics in his music, Marvin Gaye sings his piercing lyrics about the wrongs of war and injustice in society that he saw around him in from the deepest depths of his heart. Motown founder Berry Gordy doubted it would be a hit- the idea of talking about social issues in songs was, as he believed, not “commercially- a good idea.”
Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne said of the track:
"No one was expecting an anti-war song from him. But it was a moment in time when people were willing to hear it from anybody, if it was heartfelt. And who better than the person who has talked to you about love and desire?"